January 04, 2010

Four pointers to the chasm between elearning and video game designers

Pet Society - Playfish

Patrick Dunn has spotted the four big differences in the design principles of those making intranets and elearning platforms on the one hand, and video games on the other:

  • E-learning designers believe that people learn through "content". They assume that encountering content will lead people to change their behaviour. Games designers believe that people learn through "experience". They assume that having experiences - doing and feeling things - leads to change in behaviour.
  • E-learning designers believe we must be "nice" to our learners in case they go away. They assume that the relationship between the course and the learner is a weak one so that if there's any significant challenge, the learner will give up. Games designers believe that we can challenge people and they'll stick with it. Indeed, it is progressive challenges that form much of the motivation for gamers.
  • E-learning designers believe that we learn step by step (hence linearity, page-turning etc.). Game designers believe we absorb lots of things all at once (hence HUDs, complex information screens etc.).
  • E-learning designers believe that learning experiences are emotionally neutral (in spite of all that's written about the importance of emotion in learning). Games designers always seek an "angle", an attitude.

You can spot this chasm a mile off. I did when I launched my latest social 'game'.

It's an iPhone app to help people spot how much they're drinking and compare it to the reality of how much their friends are drinking (research shows that people reckon their friends consume more than they actually do, thereby leading to a vicious circle of binge drinking).

YBYL Graphic Compare the pay-for app I helped produce, You Booze You Looze, to the free National Health Service drink tracking app and the chasm is clear. On the one hand is a quirky, fun, mini-game-based app with a cheeky backstory made by a young successful Scottish game-making company (You Booze's Digital Goldfish, who also produced one of Apple's Top 30 all-time best sellers, Bloons):

Experience? Check. Challenges? Check. Multiple ways in and things to do? Check - when we added the Facebook Connect element at the backend of the game, it started to have real meaning as friends could see what each other were actually consuming (it's generally a lot less than they thought). An attitude? Double check.

NHS Drinks App On the other hand, the Government-subsidised app from the National Health Service has clearly been developed by, well, not a game designer. It looks like an app version of the Drinkaware website, and the iTunes Store reviews would suggest it has all the amusement of that, too:

All content, no narrative. No form of challenge - it's too easy to use. Only one thing you do - tell it how much you drank last night, with no social element (adding a social element means that the number things you can end up doing heads into the stratosphere). And attitude? It looks as if the committee that designed and approved this killed any attitude the designers may have wanted to inject.

Given the target audience of both apps (game-playing young men and women who drink too much and haven't done anything about it despite Government campaigns about alcohol units, drink driving and other dangers), the game-makers have produced, I believe, a better app that should achieve more. For a similar budget (or less) the great institutions of Government could look to game-makers rather than ad agencies for their next campaigns.

So could educators and intranet makers.

To this, though, I would add that video games designers have been slow in general to pick up on the potential of social gaming, and for the most part educators are still just not interested in it - it's hard enough to convince non-gamers of the benefits of video game use in the classroom without hinting that, God forbid, they can connect users through Facebook. On the other hand, elearning designers picked up on the potential of social-network-like features relatively quickly, producing social worlds and 'bebo-esque' models for interaction and learning, along the lines of, say, Honeycomb (disclosure: I was on the design consultancy team for this).

The chasm is there, but I'd disagree with Patrick: it's not uncrossable. It's also not about gamers and webheads "meeting halfway". Rather , there is a creative opportunity for game-makers and webheads to work together towards new horizons, leaving those chasms back in the decade where they belong.

Pic: Playfish's social game, Pet Society


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Trouble was in the past if you created elearning that was a game, you would win awards (proper ones like BAFTA, not elearning universe) and the kudos of cool people, but no fecker would buy it and you went bust or very nearly. So elearning designers having had their hands put in the fire and knowing all about Kolb, didn't do it again.

Now, as people are finally getting the next/net gen shift etc there is a bit more scope and some companies eg 02 use things which look like the Sims much more than elearning.

But even if you are doing stuff for a more conservative buyer, er audience, there is no reason not to give stuff an emotional context, angle, attitude, narrative, make it difficult and even dare I say it, funny.

Indeed if you are doing stuff for a smart or busy audience it is the only way you will get them to look at it.

If I was bold I would say the difference is much more simple than Patrick's 4 points, it is merely that elearning is a mirror of the people who design and buy it, and games are the same.

I was wondering how that government app compared. Is it affecting uptake of the pay-for one?

You can never say as sales figures are commercially sensitive and Apple doesn't publish them. However, YouBooze got into the top 20 paid health apps, and the NHS app headed the free apps. Free apps always generally download more than paid, of course, so yes - there's a distortion of the market.

Nice post...thanks for sharing

To compose the dissertation form just about this topic wasn’t effortless but you cope with that. If any single writer was as good as you are, people would ne'er have got problems with the thesis writing service.

Interesting post, though I might hedge this by saying "bad e-Learning designers" believe those things.

Excellent, concise post about these important differences.

Of course the e-learning designer perspective is somewhat stereotypical, but I completely agree that your analysis applies to the vast majority of e-learning being produced today (and yesterday, and the day before, and so on, and probably into the future as well).

I have found that when trainers are responsible for directing the output, the focus shifts from 'can the learner perform' to 'the learner needs to know about such-and-such'. Even the tests created reflect this objective: mostly recall of information presented during the training.

When I consult with clients about producing training for equipment (and now product marketing), I am constantly running into the traditional mindset about simply presenting the facts. Boring, and most importantly, difficult to apply in the field!

Rather, present materials in a challenge format, and remediate in several stages if the learner is not getting it.

To be an even-handed basher (not just e-learning designers), I should point out the video game creators and technology enthusiasts tend to swing too far the other way. My feeling is that they need to inject too much entertainment or technology, which, if not designed properly instructionally, can weaken the learning.

I've also talked with several manufacturers who want to create "games" to engage and teach customers, but they put the fun and interactive part over the learning objectives. For example, a game that features a product, but the use of that manufacturer's product is incidental -- it could be any of their competitors as well. Who remembers the 'viral videos' like the make-your-elven-head (I think Office Depot, or OfficeMax) but people forgot who it was produced for, or even thought it was made by a competitor (Staples)?

In any event, great insight and great post. Thanks!

I get worried about generalisations about both educators and game designers. Most educators I've come across are not so 2-dimensional as to believe those e-learning design principles that Dunn cites. And most gamers and video game designers I know are not resistant to social gaming.

But the problem I see with the Govt example you raise Ewan, is neither with e-learning designers or game designers, but rather with supplier contracts for government software application development, and with the expectations of the government clients for 'appropriate' content. The former requires application developers to go through an extraordinary process to qualify as a preferred supplier of government services, and the latter is a problem that's associated with pre-conceived notions about appearance, rather than results of interaction.

I agree absolutely that the identified 'chasm' can be bridged between e-learning and game designers (and interaction design is the logical instrument to bridge that gap). But the dual barriers of preferred supplier status and brand 'integrity' combine to create a much more formidable chasm than anything associated with design.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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